Manuscript Releases, vol. 7 [Nos. 419-525]


MR No. 483—The Spirit of 1876

A Presentation on Ellen White Geared to the Bicentennial By R. W. Olson

1—The Setting

One hundred years ago, in 1876, James and Ellen White were building a new home on the corner of 11th and Castro Streets in Oakland, California. They had moved to California from Battle Creek, Michigan, two years earlier in order to found a new publishing house and begin publication of the Signs of the Times magazine. In 1876 America turned 100, James White had his fifty-fifth birthday, and Ellen White her forty-ninth. Although their two living sons were both married, Elder and Mrs. White still had a large family. The younger son, Willie, (age 21) and his bride, Mary Kelsey White (age 19), were living with them. Mrs. White's two little grand-nieces, Addie and May Walling (about 9 and 6), were permanent members of the household. Mary Clough, auntie of the two little girls, was Mrs. White's editorial assistant. John Shew, a Chinese boy, did all the cooking and much of the other work. Finally, there was Mrs. Rice, the seamstress, who often doubled as a full-time baby-sitter for the two little girls. Nearby, in their own home, lived Elder and Mrs. White's older son, Edson (age 26) with his wife, Emma. 7MR 276.1

On March 22, James White left Oakland for a special session of the General Conference at Battle Creek. He and his wife were separated for 66 days, until they met again on May 27 at the Kansas campmeeting. During this 66-day period, Mrs. White, in particular, really kept the postman busy. She wrote her husband practically every day. On April 11 she promised him, “I will write every morning,” and then asked, “Will you do the same?” (Letter 5, 1876). On May 6 she reminded him reassuringly, “We send you letters, one every morning, so if none comes you may know the mail is hindered.” (Letter 22, 1876). 7MR 276.2

James kept 29 of the letters that Ellen sent him during this two-month period. These, and other letters written during the year, give us many delightful insights into Sister White's work and her family life a century ago. 7MR 277.1

2—Her Work

Between 1851 and 1876 Ellen White had published a half dozen books plus numerous testimony pamphlets, all of which were available to our people. In this centennial year—1876—she was desperately anxious to publish more on the life of Christ. She determined to make this her principal concern for the year. All of our conference presidents—both east and west—were appealing to her to attend their campmeetings, but she explained to her husband: 7MR 277.2

“It will take a clear sense of duty to call me from this work to campmeetings. I mean to finish my writings on one book before I go anywhere.... The East will not see me for one year unless I feel that God calls me to go.... 7MR 277.3

“The pillar of fire is here yet. When it moves I would move also. I want to follow it. I have no will of my own; I want to do God's will. At present His will is to tarry in California and make the most of my time in writing. I shall be doing more for the cause in this than in going across the plains to attend campmeetings.”—Letter 4, 1876. 7MR 277.4

Writing exhausted her much more than speaking, yet she relished the work because of what it meant to her Christian experience. “I enjoy the presence of God,” she wrote, 7MR 278.1

“and yet my soul is continually drawn out for more of His salvation.... Precious subjects I am handling. The last I completed or about completed yesterday,—Jesus healing the impotent man at the pool of Bethesda. It is a great subject, the discourse of Christ, following the healing as He was accused of the Jews of Sabbath breaking.”—Letter 1, 1876. 7MR 278.2

“The precious subjects open to my mind well. I trust in God and He helps me to write.”—Letter 4, 1876. 7MR 278.3

A little later she added: 7MR 278.4

“We feel every day a most earnest desire for a more sacred nearness to God. This is my prayer when I lie down, when I awake in the night and when I arise in the morning, Nearer my God to Thee, nearer to Thee.... My heart thirsts for the living God. I want to be a living channel of light to the world while I remain in it; and when my probation here closes, my warfare is ended, I shall have left a bright track heavenward. I love Jesus. I know this, and if I am permitted to dwell in His presence, Oh bliss, bliss indeed.”—Letter 6, 1876.

Truly heaven will be bliss, bliss indeed. But we're not in heaven yet. We're still in a sinful world. And in this sinful world even the most devout Christians sometimes feel miserable. Mrs. White was no exception. About three weeks after her husband had left home, she confessed: 7MR 278.5

“I have had a very depressed state of feelings today, unaccountably sad. I could not explain why I felt so exceedingly sad. 7MR 278.6

“We bowed before God at the commencement of the Sabbath. I commenced to pray and my heart went out after God. I wept and prayed and I felt the consolation of the Spirit of God. Jesus seemed so precious, so very precious to me. I laid all my burdens upon my Saviour and I was relieved.”—Letter 7, 1876. 7MR 278.7

Her manuscripts and testimonies were usually produced during the first half of the day. By the time Elder White had been gone five weeks she had completed, in his absence, “above 200 pages ... all copied, ready for the printers.” (Letter 16a, 1876). 7MR 278.8

Ellen White was not only a writer; she was also a preacher. She proclaimed the advent message every Sabbath and Sunday, especially in Oakland and San Francisco. Of one public meeting she confided to her husband, 7MR 279.1

“I never felt more sensibly the especial help from God.... The hall was full. There were nearly as many outsiders as believers. I never saw so many out before. Some came and looked at first a little amused as if it was sport to hear a woman speak, and as if they were to hear some rabble that would be amusing to them, but they soon wore very serious faces and many shed tears. Most I had never seen in the hall before. I do not speak smooth things to the people.”—Letter 18, 1876. 7MR 279.2

3—Home Life

The 1876 letters are important not only for what they tell us about Ellen White's writing and speaking, but also for what they reveal about her home life. Her permanent family of nine members was often greatly augmented by a flood of visitors. On a certain Tuesday she commented casually, “Yesterday ... we had sixteen to dinner.” (Letter 3, 1876). Feeding a large family with frequent guests made her constantly alert as to what could be bought in the market. One letter carries this P.S.: “It is most glorious weather. Strawberries in market, peas, new potatoes, asparagus, etc.” (Letter 6, 1876). 7MR 279.3

There were no automobiles in those days, but there were horses. When Elder White asked in one letter how the horse and wagon were, his wife responded: 7MR 279.4

“Both [are] in good condition, especially [the] horse who exhibited his balky propensities yesterday morning before Mary Clough. He was disposed to go every way but the one he should go. Willie will sell him for what he can get. The Tribune men have used him to carry their forms back and forth; paid three dollars each week. He has been used in drawing lumber and for different purposes, so that he has paid his way. But I am going to watch for an opportunity and interest others to get me a good team not so very expensive, but manageable, that Mary and I can use to ride out where and when we please.”—Letter 4a, 1876. 7MR 279.5

Ellen White recognized that a time of recreation, a break in the routine, was essential to good health. She informed her husband, “I shall ride every day after dinner. My health demands it.” (Letter 21, 1876). “I must stop a day or two in the week and go somewhere or my head will break down.” (Letter 9, 1876). “I ... shall take a day now and then for a change, ride or go to Healdsburg, not for their good but my own.” (Letter 11, 1876). 7MR 280.1

One of these days of relaxation was spent in the hills above the city of Oakland. “Yesterday,” she reported, 7MR 280.2

“we spent in the mountains and enjoyed it very much. Sister Rice and I lay down to rest on blankets and buffaloes. When we awoke, for we slept, our children and Addie and Mary were gone. We looked for them and saw them on the high mountain peaks throwing down stones. They enjoyed climbing the mountain where they had a view of the scenery, the ocean, Golden Gate, and towns and villages. They enjoyed this much. Willie came down the mountains with flowers in his coat that Addie and May had tied in so he looked like one immense bouquet.

“We went up beyond Fountain farm about five miles, took our dinner and strawberries and cream which we were favored with obtaining at a farm house close by. We had a real rest. I was satisfied to ride and lie down. I had no disposition to climb. We rode about thirty miles in all.”—Letter 22, 1876. 7MR 280.3

Another day was spent on the water, through the courtesy of one of the members of the church in San Francisco, Brother Chittenden, who owned a large sailboat. Ellen White enjoyed the occasion to the full. “Yesterday,” she wrote. 7MR 280.4

“Brother Chittenden took out a number of us on the water in his boat,—Sister Chittendon, Waggoner, Loughborough, and wife, Mary Clough, Edson, Emma, Frank, Willie Jones, Bro. O. B. Jones, Charles Jones, myself and the little girls. We remained on the water and beach all day. Sailed out of the Golden Gate upon the ocean. There was no wind to take us out of the harbor. Charlie employed a steam tug to take us out. One of his friends managed the steam boat. Mary and Emma were seasick. I was not sick at all. The waves ran high and we were tossed up and down so very grandly. I was highly elevated in my feelings, but had no words to say to any one. It was grand. The spray dashing over us. The watchful captain giving his orders, the ready hands to obey. The wind was blowing strong and I never enjoyed anything so much in my life.

“I was today to write upon Christ walking on the sea and stilling the tempest. Oh, how this scene was impressed upon my mind. Brother Chittenden says Sister White looks just happy, but she does not say a word to any one. I was filled with awe with my own thoughts. Everything seemed so grand in that ocean, the waves running so high. The majesty of God and His works occupied my thoughts. He holds the winds in His hand, He controls the waters. Finite beings mere specks upon the broad deep waters of the Pacific were we in the sight of God, yet angels of heaven were sent from His excellent glory to guard that little sailboat that was careening over the waves. Oh the wonderful works of God! So much above our comprehension! He at one glance beholds the highest heavens and the midst of the sea. 7MR 281.1

“How vividly before my mind was the boat with the disciples buffeting the waves.... I am glad I went upon the water. I can write better than before.”—Letter 5, 1876. 7MR 281.2

Ellen White was fascinated by anything related to nature. She was much more interested in planting her flower garden than she was in purchasing furnishings for the new home. She notified her husband, “I do not wish my mind diverted from my work to even go and select furniture.” (Letter 8, 1876). But she was quite willing to take whatever time was needed for the garden. In some of her other letters we find these details: 7MR 281.3

“Last evening the two Marys went with me to Brooklyn for a few flower roots for our garden. Sister Grover gave us as many as we could carry.”—Letter 3, 1876. 7MR 281.4

“We came home and I set out my things in my garden of [the] new house by moonlight and by the aid of lamplight. The two Marys tried to have me wait till morning, but I would not listen to them. We had a beautiful shower last night. I was glad then I persevered in setting out my plants.”—Letter 4, 1876. 7MR 281.5

A week later she noted, “Our hedge is growing nicely. The things we have set out in rose bushes and a few choice shrubs are doing well.” (Letter 6, 1876). 7MR 282.1

In one of Ellen White's letters to her friend Lucinda Hall, who was in Battle Creek at this time, appeared this request: 7MR 282.2

“Will you send me one of my straw hats by Frank Patten? If you could dry a few peony roots and let her take them in her trunk, and send a few slips of Queen of Prairie and a few choice seeds, as summer greens and pansy seeds, I should like some of these things so much. Send me verbena seeds.... [From] our old place in the field which we sold, I wish you could send a slip of snowballs and a trumpet vine. These would take but little space and if you could send them I could have something new here which they have not.”—Letter 61, 1876. 7MR 282.3

When she made the trip East on the train in May in the company of her niece, Mary Clough, Mrs. White took along a bouquet of California flowers. From Kansas City she reported to her children, “In this hotel all are examining our bouquet. It has lost much of its loveliness, yet sufficient remaining to be the admiration of all who look upon it. It has kept preserved in water and ice and is very nice after so long a journey.” (Letter 29, 1876). 7MR 282.4

Somewhere in Utah or Wyoming Mrs. White took a few moments to go rock-hunting. Writing to her children from Laramie, she reports: 7MR 282.5

“Yesterday while waiting for a train, we got off and [I] was looking for a stone or something as a memento. A lady said she picked up some specimens which she would give me. She gave me freely specimens of moss agate, petrified wood and bits of petrified sage. She said she had come to visit her sister who lived at the station and she would stay a week and could get all she wished. I thought it was certainly very kind and liberal of her to thus accommodate a stranger.”—Letter 28a, 1876. 7MR 282.6

Incidentally, Mrs. White and Miss Clough took with them enough food for the entire five-day trip from California to Kansas. In fact, they still had quite a bit left at the end of the journey. Concerning this she wrote, “Our lunch kept well. We have now two loaves of bread, the buns and brown loaf and fruit cake, oranges and lemons and jelly.”—(Letter 29, 1876). 7MR 282.7

4—Her Husband

Mrs. White was a devoted wife who very definitely considered her husband to be the head of the house. Her views on the husband-wife relationship she had expressed earlier in counseling a somewhat domineering wife of one of our ministers: 7MR 283.1

“We women must remember that God has placed us subject to the husband. He is the head and our judgment and views and reasonings must agree with his if possible. If not, the preference in God's Word is given to the husband where it is not a matter of conscience. We must yield to the head.”—Letter 5, 1861. 7MR 283.2

The relationships between Ellen and James White were always tender and close. But at times the demands of the work in which they were engaged separated them for weeks and at times months. When a special session of the General Conference was called to convene on March 31, James White journeyed east to be present. He was filled with plans for a great expansion of the work in all its facets. Ellen remained in Oakland to continue her writing on the life of Christ. As president of the General Conference, president of the Review and Herald Publishing Association, head of the editorial staff of the Review and Herald, and closely linked with the newly established Battle Creek College, James was soon caught up in the interests in Battle Creek and questioned the wisdom of returning to the west even though they were now building a house there. When he expressed his feeling on the subject, she answered, “While you are so happy [in the] east, I shall never ask you to cross the plains again. If you say, Stay east, thus it shall be.” (Letter 14, 1876). She suggested that they rent the new house for a brief period, and then added, “We will do exactly as you say. So advise or direct us and we will do as you say.” (Letter 8, 1876). 7MR 283.3

Both Ellen White and her husband had strong wills, both were exceptionally gifted leaders, and each had a special and distinctive work. It is not at all surprising that they should have had differences of opinion at times. When Elder White intimated that his wife showed a little bit too much independence, she responded: 7MR 284.1

“In regard to my independence, I have had no more than I should have in the matter under the circumstances. I do not receive your views or interpretation of my feelings on this matter. I understand myself much better than you understand me. But so it must be and I will say no more in reference to the matter.”—Letter 25, 1876. 7MR 284.2

She did say a little more, however, for only four days later she apologized deeply for hurting her husband's feelings. “It grieves me,” she wrote, 7MR 284.3

“that I have said or written anything to grieve you. Forgive me and I will be cautious not to start any subject to annoy and distress you. We are living in a most solemn time and we cannot afford to have in our old age [54 and 48] differences to separate our feelings. I may not view all things as you do, but I do not think it would be my place or duty to try to make you see as I see and feel as I feel. Wherein I have done this, I am sorry.

“I want an humble heart, a meek and quiet spirit. Wherein my feelings have been permitted to arise in any instance, it was wrong. Jesus has said, ‘Learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls.’ (Matthew 11:29). 7MR 284.4

“I wish that self should be hid in Jesus. I wish self to be crucified. I do not claim infallibility, or even perfection of Christian character. I am not free from mistakes and errors in my life. Had I followed my Saviour more closely, I should not have to mourn so much my unlikeness to His dear image.”—Letter 27, 1876. 7MR 284.5

That Ellen White had a real affection for her husband is very evident. In practically every letter she sent her love along to him. At times she closed her letters with the endearing words, “Your Ellen” (e.g. Letter 6, 1876). Occasionally she reminded him that his absence was sorely felt. Only two days after he left for the East she wrote, “It takes a little time to get settled down from the excitement of your going. You may be assured that we miss you. Especially do we feel the loss of your society when we gather about the fireside evenings. We feel your absence when we sit around the social board.” (Letter 1a, 1876). A little later she explained further, “We miss you ... very much, but we are so buried up in our writing we have no time ... to be lonesome while thus engaged; but when gathered about the fireside, then there is a great miss.” (Letter 9, 1876). 7MR 285.1

5—The Trip East

In spite of her original intentions not to go East that summer, she joined her husband in Kansas on May 27, for the first of fourteen campmeetings they attended. The first six campmeetings, between May 27 and July 2, were held in the region from Kansas to Minnesota. Some insight into the nature of these meetings is provided by Mrs. White's description of a service conducted at Marshalltown, Iowa. 7MR 285.2

“Monday morning I spoke from the words of Christ to Nicodemus. “Ye must be born again.” The spirit and power of God rested upon speakers and hearers. All present seemed to be deeply affected. The depth of feeling was more general than is usually seen. As I stood inviting those to come forward who wanted to fully dedicate themselves to God, sinners and backsliders, my heart was deeply affected. I felt indeed that souls were making decisions for eternity. I knew that if the eyes of those present could be opened, we should see angels of God walking through the congregation and although unseen by mortal eyes, their presence was felt. 7MR 285.3

“Three hundred came forward for prayers. We then gave them opportunity to express their feelings and one hundred and thirty testimonies were borne. Frequently four were on their feet at once, talking and confessing with tears their sins and their departure from God. I never saw it on this wise before. As the result of the meeting, forty-eight were baptized. All went to their homes encouraged and many were signally blessed. 7MR 286.1

“We are happy in this work. Many times we are disappointed in our expectations but then when we see the Lord working with our efforts, and souls coming to Christ, we forget the weariness, disappointments, and trials which we meet in connection with this work and feel honored of God to be permitted to have a part in it.”—Letter 32, 1876. 7MR 286.2

This letter was written in mid-June while the Whites were traveling on the train. Other letters to her children were written from all kinds of places. She wrote while sitting on the bed in her tent (Letter 40, 1876), while warming herself at the stove on a cold day (Letter 41, 1876), while keeping the flies off her husband who was asleep on the settee (Letter 47, 1876), in the depot while waiting for the train (Letter 47, 1876), while sailing on a crowded ferryboat on San Francisco Bay (Letter 8, 1876), while watching a baptism (Letter 30, 1876), and while her husband was preaching (Letter 30, 1876). 7MR 286.3

A very delightful interlude in the busy summer was a few days in Battle Creek followed by a visit to the Centennial exhibition in Philadelphia. They got into Battle Creek late at night on July 3. 7MR 286.4

In a letter to her children Ellen White described the big fourth of July parade in Battle Creek celebrating the Centennial: 7MR 286.5

“We were just in time [for the fourth of July celebration and] to witness the procession of the birds of paradise. The leader was represented as an Indian warrior, then followed the Continentals, the signers of the Declaration of Independence dressed as they dressed, powdered hair, short breeches and leggings. Some things were really interesting and some ridiculous.—Letter 33, 1876. 7MR 286.6

Then from Battle Creek on Tuesday, July 11, she wrote her children, “We leave here Thursday for New York. Then on to the Centennial.” (Letter 34, 1876). Arriving in due course in Wilmington, Delaware, some 26 miles from Philadelphia, the Whites arranged for accommodations for themselves and their niece in the home of a “pleasant family.” Fourteen dollars paid for board and room for all three of them for a full week. “Now,” Mrs. White exclaimed on Sunday, July 30, “Our business is to visit [the] Centennial grounds every day, see what we can and Mary make reports. We shall take our dinner with us from our landlady.” (Letter 35, 1876). 7MR 287.1

Actually, they were not able to spend every day at the exhibition as church interests in Philadelphia took some of their time, but they really seem to have enjoyed themselves immensely. 7MR 287.2

On Wednesday, August 2, Sister White wrote: 7MR 287.3

“Have been on the Centennial ground once. We are on our way today. There is much more of this than we anticipated,—representations from all parts of the world,—Swedes, Norwegians, Laplanders and some others are in life size, natural as life in their native dress. It is indeed worth seeing.”—Letter 35, 1876. [R. M. Devins in the last chapter of his “Our First Century” describes the extravaganza in glowing terms. Ulysses S. Grant, the American president, and the emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil participated in the exciting festivities. There were five main buildings located on 500 acres set apart for centennial purposes. The exhibition of American and foreign arts, products and manufacturers was one of the brilliant features of the great show. “There was presented, said Devins, “the most wondrous microcosm of civilization ever concentrated in one locality.” There was, in fact, the culminating art and skill of sixty centuries of human advancement.”—Our First Century, pp. 591-2.]

And Elder White informed Review and Herald readers, “People abroad have no just idea of the greatness, gorgeousness, and perfection of the Centennial exhibition. The newspapers can't tell it.”—The Review and Herald, August 10, 1876, p 56. 7MR 288.1

We can be certain that the exhibit of Adventist publications was one of the major points of interest to the Whites. (The Review and Herald, August 17, 1876, p 64). 7MR 288.2

The campmeeting circuit began again on August 10 and continued until October 3. During these seven and a half weeks the Whites attended eight campmeetings from Maine to Illinois. At Groveland, Massachusetts, Ellen White addressed a congregation of some 20,000 people, the largest crowd ever in her entire life. (Letter 42, 1876). 7MR 288.3

She was an indefatigable worker. She preached when she was sick and hoarse with a bad cold (Letter 37, 1876); She preached while suffering with a “most distressing headache” (Letter 30, 1876); She preached at five o'clock in the morning and in the middle of a disagreeably hot afternoon (The Signs of the Times, July 13, 1876, p 236). In describing one of her meetings in Maine, she states: 7MR 288.4

“I commenced speaking at the stand but the wind blew so hard, swaying the trees and rustling the leaves, we thought best to repair to the tent.... After speaking above one hour I called those forward who were unconverted and also the backsliders and those who felt that they had sins upon them that separated them from God. Before our effort closed sixty-five came forward. Deep feeling pervaded the meeting. There was much weeping, many confessions made, well wet down with tears. Parents were pleading for their children and youth were soliciting the youth to give their hearts to God. In speaking and entreating sinners, I stood upon my feet about four hours.”—Letter 44, 1876. 7MR 288.5

Small wonder that Uriah Smith wrote, “The presence of Bro. and Sr. White constituted in a large measure the life of the meeting.” (The Review and Herald, June 29, 1876). Small wonder, too, that Ellen White should write her son, “Your Father and Mother are worked down. I am looking old and poor for the very reason that there is no rest for us.” (Letter 39, 1876). 7MR 288.6


At long last, on November 15, after completing Spirit of Prophecy, Vol. II (on the life of Jesus), Ellen White and her husband returned to Oakland where she resumed the care of her grand-nieces, planted more seeds and bulbs in her garden, and went to work on the next volume of her books. This was the spirit of a hundred years ago. 7MR 289.1

A willingness to spend and be spent,
A determination to do only God's will,
A fascination with rocks and flowers.
Recognition of her own faults and failings,
Devotion to her husband and family,
Time for both God and country
7MR 289.2

These purposes and attitudes gave Ellen White peace and joy, and enabled the Lord, through her, to bring happiness to others. The same qualities that blessed the world a century ago will bless the world even now. May the spirit Ellen White manifested in 1876 be the spirit with which we move forward today. 7MR 289.3

Released March 16, 1976.